“After all, no matter how long you live, there aren’t too many delicious moments along the way, since most of life is spent eating and sleeping and waiting for something to happen that never does. You can figure it up for yourself, using your own life as the scoreboard. Most of living is waiting to live. And you spend a great deal of time worrying about things that don’t matter and about people that don’t matter and all this you know the very day you’re going to die.”
I read Black Wings Has My Angel, a 1953 novel from Elliott Chaze in 2012. It not only made my best-of-year list, but it also became one of my all-time favourite books. Not many books crack that well-established list at this stage of my game. Black Wings Has My Angel is perfect noir. It’s perfect in its set-up, it’s bleak, doom-laden outlook, and its characterisations of the soulless prostitute Virginia and the war damaged, escaped convict ‘Tim.’ These two people connect in a pact of distrust, lust and mutual greed, and although their heist goes as planned, their relationship with each other brings fate hurtling down upon them with a vengeance. When I saw that NYRB reissued the book, I decided to read it again and see if it was indeed as wonderful as I remembered. It was.
Our narrator, an escaped convict who calls himself Tim has taken a break from society by “roughnecking” on an drilling rig. He’s amassed a pile of money, has a plan to pull a heist, and when the novel opens, he’s in a hotel soaking in a tub when the bellboy delivers a prostitute. But this just isn’t any prostitute: this is Virginia, a gorgeous woman with a killer body who shouldn’t be turning tricks in this rinky dink town. Tim plans to whoop it up with a hooker for a few days and then move on, but his plans change and he finds himself moving on with Virginia.
“Ten dollar tramp” Virginia is beautiful, and she quickly shows she can’t be trusted, but she gets under Tim’s skin. Before long, he thinks he loves her, in spite of her telling him, “But when the money’s gone,” she said, “I’m gone too. I don’t sleep for thrills any more.” She’s like some exotic perfume that clings to his skin, and he convinces himself that they can pull a heist together. Although initially we don’t know much about either Virginia or Tim, over time, their pasts are revealed. While Tim, haunted by various experiences, appears to have been unable to readjust to society after life in a Japanese work camp, Virginia is soulless, hard and empty. Perhaps that explains why Tim can never get enough of her. There’s simply nothing to get.
As smiles go, the one she’d given me was a fine one, but it was cold, too, if you know what I mean, plenty of stretch in the lips but no eyes or heart in it. Like her lovemaking. Mechanically splendid, yet as though the performance was the result of some remote control and did not really involve her.
As so often happens with noir, we try to pinpoint just when things go wrong for the characters, at which point, Tim could have pulled out and moved on. And is always, we see a tangled path, years in the making that brings these two people–one damaged, and one soulless together. Initially it’s a physical fusion but their relationship is fated for entropy. While they plan a heist and live as a ‘normal’ suburban couple, they have a mutual goal to work for, but once their goal is achieved, they’re not happy, and begin to implode as fate waits, patiently, in the dark corners. There’s a circular quality to this noir story, a balance between crimes, murder and fate which is served up, finally, as a sort of rough justice.
For this re-read, I paid more attention to Tim’s attitude towards society and just where he started to go down a wrong path. Embittered by his father’s experiences as a dentist who rarely got paid, he sees society as grinding down men until they’re lobotomized into being grateful for life as a wage-slave, a humble clapboard house and a sparse lawn. And while it’s easy to think that his first mistake was taking Virginia along for the ride, that’s not true. I think of a quote from a Laurie Colwin short story: My Mistress “She is the road I have travelled to her, and I am hers.”
Elliott Chaze’s skill creates sympathy for Tim, and this is in spite of the fact that he murders in cold blood. But perhaps part of our sympathy germinates for Tim when we compare him to Virginia. He has a lifetime to replay scenes in his head:
She was sitting on the floor, naked, in a skitter of green bills. Beyond her was the custodian , still simpering in death. She was scooping up handfuls of the green money and dropping it on top of her head so that it came sliding along the cream-colored hair, slipping down along her shoulders and body. She was making a noise I never heard come out of a human being. It was a scream that was a whisper and a laugh that was a cry. Over and over. The noise and the scooping. The slippery, sliding bills against the rigid body.
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